Although belonging to a much younger generation, John Jeffreys (b.1927) could, on stylistic and aesthetic grounds, be counted among the great songwriters of the second English Renaissance – composers like Quilter, Gurney, Ireland, Finzi and Warlock. Jeffreys even follows Warlock’s scholarly interest in the Elizabethan lute song, having published a scholarly “memoir”, as the booklet notes have it, of Philip Rosseter. An important point: like both Rosseter and his friend Thomas Campion, Jeffreys places the intelligibility of the texts above all else. Like theirs (and Finzi’s), his settings are largely syllabic. His sparse, evanescent accompaniments are incredibly evocative and his melodies have a folk-like simplicity that nevertheless releases the fragrant depths of his chosen texts with a seemingly effortless grace.
The selection on this present disc, many of which are recorded here for the first time, spans more than 50 years and features a wide variety of poets. It is organised into six distinct section. ‘Songs of Love’ include a setting of Barry Duane Hill’s enigmatic The Song of Love and (Herrick’s) Passing By, while ‘Settings of Ivor Gurney’ feature a wistful version of Severn Meadows which compares very favourably with Gurney’s. ‘Sacred Texts’ has as it’s a centrepiece Joseph Campbell’s wonderful I am the Gilly of Christ. Jeffreys then goes head to head with Quliter in ‘Settings of Shakespeare’ with a superb O Mistress Mine before the watercolour sketches of ‘Evocations of place and nature’ (here, Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s Black Stitchel and Yeats’s Salley Gardenstake pride of place, the ghost of Gurney just audible in both). She is ever for the new and Jillian of Berry bring the recital to ‘A Jolly End’.
These settings are beautifully realized by tenor James Gilchrist, who has completely mastered the art of chiaroscuro and legato singing without sacrificing clarity of diction. Do you remember his Finzi recital for Linn Records? Here’s more of the same. Anna Tilbrook is, as always, a sympathetic accompanist. Booklet notes by Peter Palmer discuss Jeffreys’s influences and provide commentaries on each song; valuable biographical information (including the fact that, while in the throes of depression, Jeffreys destroyed many of his works, only to painstakingly recompose them once his depression lifted) is also included.
Some might find the overall tone of this disc rather sombre, but I for one incline to wards the melancholy and so found yet another reason for thinking John Jeffreys a true Elizabethan (II) master.
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